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The mandate fallacy

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010



Goodbye, at the very least, to Aqua Buddha, “I’m not a witch,” Connecticut wrestle mania, bestiality emails, demon sheep, “Taliban Dan,” and all the other sordid detritus of the midterm cycle – with a bonus farewell to clownish tea-partier Sharron Angle, who handily fulfilled my June prediction that she would be the “gift” meal on Harry Reid’s dinner plate.

And with respect to the nationwide election results, let’s keep it simple: when the American economy is horrible, the president’s party typically takes the big hit (regardless of whether the incumbent party deserves all the blame). It happened last night – with the GOP racking up 60 or more House seats, and gaining at least six seats in a still-Democratic Senate – just as it has happened before. The lazy analysis is that last night was “historic.” (Sean Hannity on Fox: “Historic!”) It’s more accurate to say that the ’10 results are in tune with the basic historical pattern.

When the Great Depression worsened in 1937, the Republicans reaped the whirlwind one year later, embarrassing Franklin D. Roosevelt by scoring a net gain of 81 House seats (still the modern record); he was so mortally wounded that his face wound up on the dime in your pocket. When the jobless rate was 10 percent in 1982, at the time of Ronald Reagan’s first midterm cycle, the Democrats scored a net gain of 26 House seats, and prominent pundits concluded that Reagan himself was toast (Edwin Yoder: “If Ronald Reagan were a prime minister and ours were a parliamentary system, he would be out today”); moreover, in the Rustbelt states, 58 percent of midterm voters told the exit pollsters that they didn’t think Reagan should run for re-election.

In other words, critics of President Obama would be wise not to marinate in historical cluelessness and interpret last night’s results as some kind of unique event, as a momentous ideological sea change in the American electorate, or as a death knell for Obama. As the nonpartisan Washington analyst Stuart Rothenberg warned the other day, even as he was predicting huge GOP House gains, “Don’t read long-term trends into this election, or any other.”

Naturally, those misreadings have already begun. Various Republicans predictably declared last night that “the American people” had awarded them a “mandate” for limited government and lower federal spending (you know, the kind of stuff that Republicans routinely ignored when they ran Washington during the Bush era).

But that spin is way too facile. For starters, the exit polls report that only 41 percent of the midterm voters had a favorable view of the GOP (while 42 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic party – go figure). Indeed, Florida senatorial winner Marco Rubio said, “We make a great mistake if we believe that these results tonight are somehow an embrace of the Republican party.”

Most importantly: The vast majority of voters stayed home, as always happens in midterm years – with the stay-at-home factor exacerbated by the economic undertow. The motivated midterm electorate was markedly older, whiter, and far more conservative than the electorate that shows up for a president contest (conservatives comprised 41 percent of the ’10 voter pool, the highest share ever recorded in midterm exit polls.) A motivated slice of the American people is not to be confused with “the American people.”

As for the independent swing voters (28 percent of the ’10 poll), most swings tend to be results-oriented people who eschew ideology; the economic results are bad these days, so they basically said, “Let’s try the other team, maybe they can do something.” They used the in party as an outlet for their gut frustrations. If Obama had not walked into an economic debacle (thanks to factors that were baked into the cake during the Bush era), indeed, if Obama had enacted historic health reform, financial regulatory reform, and credit card reform at a time of economic stability, those swing-voting independents would not have delivered 55 percent of their votes to the out party.

So there is no ideological “mandate,” just as there was no such “mandate” when Republicans took both the House and Senate in 1994, Bill Clinton’s first midterm. Conservative columnist George Will thought otherwise, writing a post-election column that must have sent his bow tie spinning counterclockwise. He declared the results to be a “resounding ideological statement,” and said that Clinton was politically dead, in the Jimmy Carter mode. One year later, “mandate” revolutionary Newt Gingrich tried to shut down the government, the public opinion sided with Clinton, and one year after that, Clinton cruised to re-election – in part because he worked with Republicans to get some results. Pragmatic American voters like results.

(The economy was not an overriding issue in the ’94 elections, but a lopsidedly conservative midterm electorate was ticked off about the tax hikes in the ’93 budget package. Republicans claimed the package would plunge the nation into a long ’90s recession, or, as the young John Boehner foresaw, a “double dip” recession. Their claims proved to be a crock, but it helped get their voters out in ’94.)

Indeed, there is no conservative mandate this morning, any more than there was a liberal mandate in 2008. On the eve of the ’08 voting, one columnist wrote that Obama would be smart “not to mistake a solid win for a sweeping ideological agenda. Victory would present Obama with an opportunity, not a mandate…and there would be little margin for error.”

That was me.

The current bottom line? Most Americans (especially those who skipped the midterms) want both sides to work together in fixing the economy. Practicality matters far less than ideology. The problem, however, is that the mandate mavens view compromise as akin to surrender. Sarah Palin plucked that chord the other day, warning that “anyone in the GOP who thinks they can cut a little deal here, there with Obama” might well “find themselves out of a job in 2012. We gotta remind these folks, in the next couple of years, ‘we put you in, we can take you out.'”

It’s that old saying, Be Careful What You Wish For. Republicans wanted a piece of the power pie, and now they’ve got it. Now they get to share the responsibility for governance in tough times, while somehow needing to appease the tea-party crowd and brave the incessant bleatings of a former half-term governor.

All told, given the polarization with which we are now burdened, last night’s vote for checks and balances may well portend two years of gridlock. Journalistically, the new political alignment will be a great story; I’m happy about that, as far as it goes. But it might not be the nation’s finest hour.


55 Comments

  • Cutter McCool says:

    The GOP is caught been a rock and a hard place: their base (the Tea Party) won’t tolerate any compromise with Obama, and is threatening to throw them out of office if they do compromise. But independents want compromise or they’ll swing back to the Democrats as they did in 2006 & 2008. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is not a solid strategy to win in the presidential year in 2012.

    Also if they compromise (fat chance of that) Obama will have those bipartisan achievements (in job creation, for e.g.) to run on in 2012. And if they don’t compromise (which is the limited strategy that got them were they are and doesn’t, therefore, seem like they’ll abandon) Obama will be able to point at them and say: this is what we achieved before they arrived (a lot) and this is what we achieved after their arrival (a lot of nothing). Do you still want them in Congress?

    Again, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

  • Tom - wilmington, de says:

    Amazing how posters like Portly are talking about compromise and working together. I guess he/she was talking that same way in 2006 and 2008 when Dems took over Congress, and especially over the past two years when Dems had total control over Washington. I do not recall seeing any posts from Portly about Obama working with Republicans, reaching across the aisle. As a matter of fact, Portly backed Pelosi and Reid for their locking out Republicans from taking part in writing legislation. Oh how the worm turns. As for whether Repubs won or Dems lost, I prefer to say Dems lost, since that furthers the repudiation of the Dems policies and tactics over the past two years, reinforcing the fact that this is a center-right country and you cannot rule it from the left.

    • landscape says:

      Tom I agree that the Democrats lost. But I think it was all about the economy. The people that swing elections are the independents. They voted their wallets, not ideology.

  • Tom - wilmington, de says:

    Meanwhile, the Fed is going to continue monetizing our debt by buying up to $600 Billion in bonds. Not good.

  • Tom - wilmington, de says:

    Too funny. A post decries Nikki Haley in South Carolina because she converted to Christianity, thereby labeling her not a true minority of Indian descent because she is a Christian (as if there is a litmus test). Marco Rubio is labeled a Hispanic, but not a true Hispanic because he is Cuban and Cubans have been voting GOP for years. True Latino’s would never vote for a Republican (see Republican Latina governor of New Mexico, Republican Latino governor of Nevada, numerous newly elected Republican members of House as rebuttals). So this is the new narrative for liberals. Rubio, if he were a true Latino, would be in the Democrat party. Haley, if she were truly a minority, would not be a Christian. And we are the ones who are racist and stereotype?

  • swedesboromike says:

    After a noon conference call with his caucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., fresh off his own hard-fought re-election, told reporters, “The one thing that we are focused on like a laser is that we are going to cut taxes for the middle class.

    Read more: http://politics.blogs.foxnews.com/2010/11/03/reid-willing-listen-tax-cuts-making-them-permanent-wont-happen#ixzz14JT8Emll……………………………………….. So basically Harry Reid wants to lie to the American people. He will not be cutting anyone’s taxes. What he is talking about is keeping the middle class tax cuts in place from President Bush. Reid is talking about keeping the tax code the same.

  • yobill626 says:

    This is the 3rd election in a row that was labeled “wave”. If the ‘Pubs haven’t learned from their own past, they will be washed away again. If you Cons think the voters have any allegiance to them, then you haven’t been paying attention.

    • Tom - wilmington, de says:

      Bill, I would hardly compare the last two elections to this one. The Republicans captured more House seats this past election than the Dems did in 2006 and 2008 combined. Hardly a fair comparison.

  • JimR says:

    Heed this warning regarding Electile Dysfunction. To avoid permenant damage, seek medical help if you experience an election lasting more tham 4 months. Sudden decrease or loss of hearing has been reported in people with Electile Dysfunction. Wasn’t it great to have nothing but bills in the mail today?

  • swedesboromike says:

    Marco Rubio for president!

    • Steve says:

      Yup. People mention Chris Christie but I honestly am not sure if his blunt style will go over well in places outside of the Northeast. Rubio seems more polished, but admittedly I know very little else about him. At first blush,I would much, much prefer either of these two compared to Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich.

      • swedesboromike says:

        There were some really good GOP candidates this election cycle. Of course the media predictably focused on the Sarah Palin ” mini me ” in Delaware. Corbett, Toomey, Haley, Johnson, Kirk and Rubio were vastly qualified people with the right temperment and political philosophy for public service. I am more confident than ever that Republicans will field a solid contender against Obama in 2012.

    • JimR says:

      There was a large group of new names on the scene. It may yield a good crop of potential candidates in the next round. Out with old,in with the new.

  • Alvenada says:

    What is going on in Washignton State! How friggin hard is it to have an election and provide the results? There is a lot of shenanigans going on out west with these mail in ballots. Talk about opening yourself up for massive fraud. All these states should be on the same system. Show up on election day a vote. nuff said!

  • Alvenada says:

    This is an excerpt from Polmans column from January 30th 2009 on philly.com…………………………. “The week concludes with a dose of drama in the Republican party. But it can hardly be called a festive occasion, given the bleak mood of the party regulars. Just the other day, conservative strategist and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said that the GOP “is in serious danger of slipping into oblivion.””……………………………………….. so nearly 2 years ago he was channeling quotes that said the GOP was slipping into oblivion. What a difference in such a short time. An Indian- American Republican captures the governorship in South Carolina. A wise Latino wins in Florida and an African American Republican captures a seat in South Carolina.

    • Tom - wilmington, de says:

      Not to mention the Latina female Republican of New Mexico.

      • swedesboromike says:

        Tom, While I think it is unwise for either side to pontificate their eternal majority there are some winds of change regarding diversity in the GOP. Things are changing and I don’t know what the Dems will do as more and more minority voters align themselves with the party that advocates fiscal sanity, low taxes, pro business, and less government. The accusation that Republicans are racists is appearing more and more foolish by the day and minority Republicans keep winning elections.

        • Steve says:

          But Republicans need to continue to articulate why the things they stand for are good for middle and lower-middle class working folks and not just the wealthy. They have to continue siding with small business owners, entrepreneurs, and can’t be so tied to Wall Street and big global corporations (not that they should bash and blame these two constituencies either like Obama, who has practically criminalized someone that happens to work for a health insurance firm or bank). Again, I think the Tea Party movement can help here, because by no means are Tea Partiers beholden to big business or Wall Street.

        • swedesboromike says:

          Steve- totally agreed. There is a recipe for political success when you look at Christie, Haley, Corbett, Kasich, Johnson, Kirk, Toomey, and Rubio etc.

        • pollman says:

          Nikki Haley may be Indian, but she converted to Christianity. Would the “diverse” GOP have nominated her if she stayed a Sikh? Yes, Rubio is a Hispanic, but he’s Cuban. Cuban-Americans have been voting GOP for some time now. Do you think Mexican-Americans are going to vote for the GOP (especially in Arizona) in droves because of Rubio? As for the idea that one seat in conservative South Carolina portends a wave of African-Americans moving to the GOP….dream on!

        • swedesboromike says:

          Pollman- you are in denial. Get a good night’s rest. Take a couple aspiran and relax to fight another day.

    • JimR says:

      First: The reference used (as well as others at the time) came from inside the party. The Republicans were very concerned about the future.
      You’re right that predictions of dynasties are foolish. The repubs got drummed out just two years ago. If they don’t produce they’ll be out in two years and we’ll play political tennis again with nothing ever getting any better.
      Second: maybe the party should have embraced this ‘diversity’ (dirty word) 30 years ago to avoid fighting the image issue.

  • NE Philly says:

    A great night for the GOP except that Harry Reid (i predicted otherwise) got off the hook. We will get the Senate next time Harry and relegate you to minority leader in 2 years. The fastest way for the GOP to cut govt. spending is to freeze spending increases for all programs, yes including the military, for the next 2 years! All spending bills originate in the House and if they don’t authorize any increases, then no increases can happen, I think:) Time to whittle away at the Obama deficit without job killing tax increases! Cut govt. spending and cut taxes, that is the way to jumpstart the economy. I would start with the same payroll tax holiday I advocated instead of the stimulus package. I almost fell out of my chair when Paul Begala said the same thing on CNN. LOL. We will see if the President gets the message. I somehow doubt it. This president is no Bill Clinton & will be a 1 termer unless he has an epiphany, imo. Lets’s hope Nancy Pelosi retires and goes home for good. We’re tired of paying for her extravagance. Thanks for your service Nancy, but join Charlie Crist and go home!

    • JimR says:

      NEP, you lost on the Adcock race, too. He had a lib’s lib as opposition and he still couldn’t break through. Unfortunately, the Repubs will not freeze everything. Cuts will be very hard because the reelection season started today and the way you get into office is to give things away.

    • landscape says:

      I think you are going to be very disappointed in what gets cut. That’s the hard work of governing which NONE of the politicians want to do because it costs them votes.

      • Steve says:

        Ah, but enter the Tea Party. Those candidates elected and backed by the Tea Party will NOT win their primaries and even get to the general election if they don’t hold the line on spending. What may indeed end up happening is that some of the fiscal conservatives make the tough choices, win the primary, but then lose the general election because of an electorate hooked on entitlements.

  • Timx says:

    The most House Seats changed hands since 1948. Historic is the appropriate term to describe what happend.

  • Tom - wilmington, de says:

    Also in January, 2009, Polman referred to the Republicans as “defanged” and “declawed”. And how can we forget what Polman wrote on January 26, 2009…”He’s a new kind of president, offering a new paradigm for governance, at a time when the nation is in the throes of tumultuous economic, cultural, and demographic change. He seems well suited to this historic moment; indeed, he seems to embody the America of the new millennium….When Obama met Friday with members of the shrunken House GOP, to seek their support for a bipartisan stimulus package, deputy Republican leader Eric Cantor politely objected, on philosophical grounds, to certain facets of the Obama plan. (Apparently Cantor didn’t like the idea of giving tax breaks to bottom-rung working Americans who pay no income taxes.) Obama politely replied that he, not the GOP, won the November election, so therefore his position would prevail…” So now that the Republicans won the election, it is all about compromise. How bad was it? Not only did Reps capture the House and gain at least 6 Senate seats, they also gained 10 governorships and flipped 14 state legislatures from Dem to Rep control. That is going to work out great when it comes to redistricting. Can you say repudiation?

    • Timx says:

      It worked for him. When youre a mouthpiece of the DNC, it’s a lot more important to spin for them than it is to bring insight to it’s readers and listeners.

  • Tom - wilmington, de says:

    Back on Jan 9, 2009, Polman wrote in a column about the RNC chairmanship election..”Ultimately, the candidates yesterday articulated their fallback position: somehow the Obama team will screw up, and therein lies the opportunity for a comeback. Dawson talked about how the Democrats will be “overreaching and overpromising…They’ll give us the gift of an overreaching, overpowering government that will limit our freedom.” That would certainly allow the GOP to talk about what it is against. But, in an ethnically and racially diverse nation, what does the party stand for? And how will it sell those affirmative principles to an increasingly wary electorate? It will take more than the election of a GOP chairman to sort out that dilemma.” Sort of prophetic now, huh?

  • jmc says:

    Well DP, in the last couple of weeks we were called “enemies”, and told we would have to “sit in the back” by our great uniter. Forgive us if we don’t seem in a compromising mood, because we’re not.

  • Nalaka says:

    Let’s run a little poll–how many of you think there will be shutdown of government at some point in the next two years because Obama and the Republican House disagree on the budget? I think it is unlikely because the Republicans would recall the results when Newt Gingrish tried. On the other hand, they will face pressure from their tea party base to shut down the government in an effort to stand on principles, and emboldened by the public access/spin provided by Fox News, they may decide to try a government shut down.

    • Tom - wilmington, de says:

      If a budget passes both a Republican controlled House and a Democrat controlled Senate, then the only way the government could be shut down is if Obama vetoed the bill. Do you think that will happen, and if it does, do you really believe Democrats would be entirely shielded from blame since they control half of Congress?

      • JimR says:

        Jim Demint has spoken of looking for government gridlock (Business Week) so it’s a definite possibility.

    • Steve says:

      Yeah, with the Senate staying in Democratic control, it removes a potential political strategy Obama could use by pointing to a fully Republican Congress and placing the accountability and blame on them (like Clinton could do). Things are a little more complicated for Obama politically with the Dems in charge of the Senate.

      • Rich says:

        If a budget passes the Democratic-controlled Senate, it will have had most of the really offensive right-wing drivel stripped out of it (or else it wouldn’t pass), so Obama would have no need to use the veto pen.

  • Tom - wilmington, de says:

    Funny how when Republicans win, people want compromise, but when Democrats win, people want their agenda. That is the liberal spin.

    • puttinonthefoil says:

      Wrong Tom. If by “people” you are referring to normal pragmatic Americans, then stay rest-assured that they want compromise. Just see how many Americans support the uncompromising rhetoric of Sarah Palin. Not many. I’m happy the Republicans have a seat at the table. Now it’s time for the parties to get to work. Doing nothing will not get them as far as it has in the last two years. People want results not rhetoric. I’m sick of the bumper sticker mentality. When people view politics as a winner-take-all game, then the people lose. Bottom line.

      • swedesboromike says:

        hopefully they will work hard at saying No to the liberal agenda. Judging by some of the Dino’s ( i.e. Manching in WV) that won last night I would say there will be much bipartisanship working against the far far leftists policies of Obama.

    • Rich says:

      I remember hearing a LOT about the Republican “mandate” after 2000 and 2004 from the wingnut crowd. The hard right and hard left are always ready to see a mandate in any win, no matter how small, and history teaches us that they are pretty much always wrong about that.

    • landscape says:

      Tom Did the Repubicans win or did the Democrats lose? That answer has a lot to do with what voters expect to happen in Congress.

  • swedesboromike says:

    By Wednesday morning, Republican gains hit 60 seats. That wiped out all the gains that Democrats made in 2006 and 2008 and slid past the 54 seats the GOP achieved in its 1994 landslide. Republicans picked up at least three seats in each of the following states: Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. A historic night for sure. But of course Polman would only see it that way it it was the Democrats picking up 60 seats

    • Tom - wilmington, de says:

      MSNBC has the gain projected to be 63 seats.

      • Steve says:

        Like Dick said though, that’s not historic at all. That’s just a normal change during a down economy….Yeah, right. When was the last time that many seats changed hands? How far back do we have to go? Nothing historic at all….Riiiiight.

    • Steve says:

      I listened to Dick Polman a little bit on WHYY’s broadcast last night….You could hear the pain in his voice as the predicted Republican gains were being tallied. I will give him an A for consistency though. He said the same thing last night, minimizing the Tea Party’s impact and instead rationalizing all of this as being only a result of the sluggish economy. Well, that might be the case. But perhaps if Obama and his allies in Congress had handled things differently from the beginning, our recovery would have been on a much better trajectory by now. Instead, he bashed business, focused on healthcare, and ran up more debt, all while making the environment for business owners and CEOs all the more uncertain. So yeah, he inherited a poor economy when he came into office, but his actions in office only exacerbated the problems.

  • swedesboromike says:

    Mr. Polman, have a slice of humble pie. For, it was you, who is only a few years removed from declaring that Republicans were relegated to regional white guy party status . Your column today is predictable and boorish.

    • Steve says:

      Swede, He’s still reeling from last night’s pummeling. It must be especially hard to fathom that the allegedly extreme and racist tea party movement could back a candidate like Marco Rubio. How dare they help elect a conservative Hispanic candidate to the U.S. Senate? It just doesn’t fit the liberal narrative. Oh, how unfortunate for them. Oh yeah, and he beat an old white guy (former) Republican.

  • yobill626 says:

    Lets see if the ‘Pubs can break with their recent past & not act like pigs at the trough. Can they show the self restraint that has eluded them in the past? If they act like they did in 2002-2006 there will be another wave election in 2012.

    • Steve says:

      Agreed. A lot of them were sent there to continue being the party of No, but in a way many of us conservatives agree with, meaning No on more discretionary spending and No on punting the debt burden forward and No on more entitlements and even No on more defense spending. So far Washington – old school Republicans and Democrats alike – have not had the guts to say No. They won’t even make it to the general election the next time around and get voted out in the primaries (like Castle) if they go back to their profligate ways.

  • yobill626 says:

    I just had to stop by & see my Con friends crow about last night’s results. Nobody checked in yet. Oh well… I think Dick may be right. I dislike guys like Toomey & Rand Paul, and respect but disgree with guys like Rubio, but I have to admit, pretty much across the board, the people elected reasonably qualified candidates. Thankfully, the nitwits, like Angle, O’Donnell & Joe Miller were repudiated. As happy as the ‘Pubs are, they have to be kicking themselves over blowing the Senate takeover by selecting the wrong candidates in NV & DE. No way Reid should have won…

  • portly says:

    Great column, Dick! The money quotes: “…critics of President Obama would be wise not to marinate in historical cluelessness and interpret last night’s results as some kind of unique event”…and my favorite: “A motivated slice of the American people is not to be confused with “the American people”. That one is going on a T-shirt and bumper-sticker later today.

    This will work out well in the end, because the Pubs will have to crawl out from under their “NO!” rock and actually take part in governance. They will still try to deny Obama any legislative victories in the name of the 2012 election…a strategy that holds great danger for them. Lets have at it!!

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